Prominent anthropologists join academic boycott of Israel

Earlier this year, the blog Savage Minds and Anthropologists for a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions joined forces to post a series of six essays on the issue of the academic boycott of Israel.

The essays, all by figures eminent within the field of anthropology and archaeology, combine personal, political and philosophical reflection on why each of the writers believes an academic boycott to be a necessary and ethical tool in the fight against Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.

Together, the authors of the essays read like a roll-call of some of the most eminent scholars in the anthropology of the Middle East.

They include Talal Asad, specialist in Middle Eastern religion and politics at City University of New York Graduate Center; Steve Caton of Harvard, who is an expert on Yemen and the Arabian peninsula; Michael Taussig of Columbia, famous for his work on ritual, colonialism and Walter Benjamin; and Rosemary Sayigh, best-known for her pioneering 1979 book Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries.

The penultimate essay was by Brian Boyd of Columbia University, an archaeologist of prehistoric Palestine who I must thank for tipping me off about the series in the first place.

Why do academics boycott Israel?

In the ongoing fight for a boycott, in which BDS supporters are often charged with stifling academic freedom or anti-Semitic targeting of Jewish scholars, the set of essays is a valuable contribution for several reasons.

Firstly, it gives a detailed picture of the decisions-making processes which major scholars in the field have been through as they decide to publicly back the boycott call. Some note that they have not previously been fans of boycotts, but see the case of Israel as justifying such a move.

Some describe decades-long processes of coming to an understanding of the extent to which drastic – if peaceful – measures need to be taken to challenge a state which routinely flouts international law and basic ethics, and is never pulled up on it by other nations.

All display the amount of thought and consideration that academics put into deciding that to boycott another country’s academic institutions is necessary in the face of state intransigence and brutality. There are no knee-jerk reactions or simple bigotries in these actions.

Secondly, it is a valuable insight for those of us outside the world of academia into the conversations that go within academic disciplines.

For better or worse, there are many causes and campaigns demanding people’s time and commitment. So it is important to know what arguments and events sway professionals like this to decide not just to back a cause, but to put their heads above the parapet and make a statement which they know will bring accusations and insults at them from the Zionist lobby.

Thirdly, this collection of essays represents a brilliant resource, almost an anthology of the arguments for an academic boycott, as well as refutations of the accusations that invariably come from the Zionist quarter.

For the six not only comprise the essays themselves, but also a set of suggested readings and links from each writer, pointing the interested on to new essays, statements, articles and other resources.

And those interested (whether for political or professional reasons) in the interactions between the issue of Palestine and the discipline of anthropology can look forward to the forthcoming book Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East by Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar (who edited the Savage Minds series).




I have boycotted Israel for some 20 years. refused to lecture there and turned down requests to review assessments for promotion. I explained I have defended oppressed minorities like the Gypsies and had sympathy for the Palestinians. I received a horrific email from the vice chancellor of the specific university in Israel accusing me of racism. Even now Im accused of racism by Professor Yaron Matras, Israeli educated, when I defended myself against his continuing onslaught of my work. He accused me of inventing the term 'Gypsiologist' in a 'self righteous CRUSADE' against Gypsies. I objected to him using my Biblical Christian upbringing as a term of abuse. I then repeated what my ex boyfriend once called me when I showed sympathies for the Palestinians during the 6 Day War. Proud to be jewish, he signed up at the London embassy to fight for Israel then told his students that his grandmother always warned him against getting mixed up with a dirty GOY like me. When I recently labelled myself as a goy to Prof Matras, I was accused of anti semitism! Then I was asked to apologise on the EU Roma network.. I merely repeated what my jewish boyfriend had called me. No matter that my mother was au pair to leading jewish families in Berlin in the early 1930s, had helped some escape to the UK. Defending Palestine is turned upside down and called anti semitism. At least when I contacted my ex he said the accusation against me was a cheap trick . The demonisation of Christian or Muslim persons is used to defend an apartheid state. Apparently it is wrong to use goy but OK to repeat the Gypsy label for non Gypsies, gaje. I am emeritus from Asad's former university of Hull. I respect ALL cultures and peoples. Churchill defended the founding of Israel because according to him the existing inhabitants of the territory were 'inferior'. Anthropologist DONT have racist hierarchies. My mother cried over friends lost in the Holocaust but Israelis defame antiZionist Goyim


Professor Judith Oakley's response humbles.

In my own past, my stepmother (a "goy"= Quaker) was
a chief actor in the anti-fascist resistance in exile during
World War Two. My Mother in circa 1938 under a
false non-Jewish-sounding name took a message into
Berlin. (We don't send messages that way today.) Since
she has Jewish ancestry her continued work was considered
unsafe. Returning to the US my parents helped some
Jews come to the US. (I do not approve of their boasted
"anti-communism" but that is another issue.)

When there was a special exhibit on opposition to Hitler,
I offered to do a little volunteer work. I was turned down
by a major sponsoring organization (Quakers).

I am sure you are quite familiar with Norman Finkelstein's
book THE HOLOCAUST INDUSTRY which provides
context, background and a deeper understanding for
the many of us for whom the pejorative "anti-Semitic"
has been used.

If I must be "anti-Semitic" to fight against injustice,
so be it!

With thanks and deep appreciation,

---Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

Sarah Irving

Sarah Irving's picture

Sarah is a freelance writer and editor, author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, co-editor of A Bird is Not a Stone (a volume of Palestinian poetry translated into the languages of Scotland), and a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked and traveled in Palestine since 2001.